On Monday 22 May, 2006 at 1pm, thousands of GCSE1 students across the United Kingdom sat down to their first Humanities2 paper – for many of them, their very first GCSE exam. Little did they know what awaited them.
What Should Have Happened
The AQA3 is one of the three largest English exam boards, awarding 51% of all full course GCSEs. They were in charge of this Humanities exam.
Common practice with Humanities exams is to send out source booklets to the school Humanities department a few weeks beforehand. Source booklets will contain six or seven separate items, ranging from simple cartoons and diagrams to excerpts from newspaper articles and government reports. Candidates are expected to answer questions with reference to the sources.
These source booklets will be studied, notes will be made, and the class will try to guess some of the exam board's questions. The source booklets delivered ahead of time are meant for revision only, and students are forbidden from taking them into exams. A clean copy of the source booklet is provided instead, along with the question paper. The exam lasts for one hour and 45 minutes.
What Actually Happened
Due to a huge administrative blunder in the dispatch department, the AQA exam board sent out the question paper for the exam, but not the clean source booklet. Panic ensued in many schools as teachers hurriedly photocopied the spare source booklets sent to them several months previously – however, a later communication from the AQA advised them not to use these in the exams, as there were bound to be one or two schools who weren't able to photocopy enough sheets for the exam, and would therefore have an unfair disadvantage compared to the rest of the schools. Despite this, several schools went ahead with the exam using photocopied source booklets. The error affected 11,000 GCSE Humanities exams.
The effect on student morale was devastating. Although some able students managed to recall the contents of the source booklet, many were left staring at the question sheet, racking their brains for answers. Fortunately, there were one or two questions which didn't relate to the source booklets, but even with these questions completed, it was a long time before the exam finished - time in which they had nothing to do but sit at their desks and contemplate their exam papers.
After the exam, there was more bad news, as rumours spread of a problem with the next day's English Literature exam – it was thought that the clean English Poetry Anthologies required were also undistributed. However, this turned out not to be so, and the next exam went ahead smoothly.
A Happy Ending?
The AQA's solution to the problem was to mark only those questions that did not relate to the source booklet and, by way of an apology to their students, lowered the marks required to reach certain grades. While this may seem like a diplomatic solution, it was slightly unfair on those students who had done their exams with photocopied source booklets against AQA instructions, thus spending less time and effort on the questions not relating to the source booklets. The able students who had memorised the source booklets beforehand went similarly unrewarded. In an ideal situation the exam should have been declared invalid, with everyone being required to sit it again4.
The AQA also reviewed their checking procedures to make sure that such a situation never occurs again, but many students still remember with great bitterness this nightmare start to the exam period.